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October 2018 Issue
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Can’t get enough

Lou Sanson says there are plenty of tools left to deal with visitor crowding on the Great Walks. Photo: George Driver
DOC’s director-general Lou Sanson discusses the future of New Zealand’s Great Walks.

Is there a limit to how many Great Walks we can have?

We now have visitors coming to New Zealand just to do a Great Walk. The four biggies: Abel Tasman, Routeburn, Milford and Kepler are having capacity issues. Rakiura Track is having capacity issues and we’re having to develop more water tanks and camping. So yeah, there is definitely room for more Great Walks.

Do you have a number of additional Great Walks in mind? 

I think we’re looking at two or three. I know the minister [of conservation, Eugenie Sage] is encouraging us to think of using the brand with Maori land. We’ve been talking to the Hanmer and Kaikoura district councils about the possibility of a walk through the Clarence that would have pastoral lease and conservation park together.

We’re quite keen to look at other opportunities that might not just be conservation estate.

Public-private partnerships?

Yeah, we’re keen to look at those opportunities.

Out of the three finalists for the next Great Walk – Te Paki, Hump Ridge and Queen Charlotte – will only one be developed?

There is a possibility all three could go forward. The Hump Ridge has been very good at raising community money. The one in the north could be a partnership with iwi. And Queen Charlotte involves private land as well. We’re not saying one only, we’re saying let’s look at the business proposition for all three, but let’s also keep open discussions with our treaty partner for Tarawera and the Hurunui and Kaikoura district councils with their proposal.

If only one can be done, do you have a preference? 

No, I don’t. We think the Far North one [Te Paki Coastal Track] is a unique proposition for an area that is used by 350,000 day trippers but not a lot of trampers. We think it could actually significantly change the ability for people to spend a lot more time in those dramatic landscapes with a fantastic treaty partner story.

How will DOC manage visitor pressure on the current Great Walks?

We think Milford will always be one of the greatest walks in the world. We just can’t get away from that. We tend to think the Routeburn and Abel Tasman are not far behind some of the most coveted walks anywhere in the world. We will have to look eventually at one way travel on the Routeburn – we can manage visitor pressures by restricting and getting people to walk one way rather than two ways. So we’ve still got a  few more tools to deal with visitor crowding and visitor experience.

Why should people walk the new Paparoa Track Great Walk?

LS: It opens up a whole landscape that is really only just touched on at Punakaiki, plus the respect for those Pike 29 miners. So it’s got a unique part of our heritage: the fascinating story of coal mining, of the Pike tragedy and the absolutely fabulous ecosystem and nature that very few people have been able to get into because Paparoa National Park is so inaccessible. 

Do you have a favourite Great Walk?

Every year since I’ve been director-general, on about the fourth of January, I walk the Routeburn. I just love the alpine environment, I love the alpine flowers. And the hut wardens. The hut warden stories are part of the whole attraction. I think this is the unrealised experience we’ve got: the value-add that we’re going to offer to visitors through storytelling, through hut wardens, and that’s a whole new direction [in which] I would like to take the Great Walks.

Can you expand on that idea?

Rangers in huts are a unique experience. The whole dimension of storytelling and bringing the landscape to life, whether it’s an iwi landscape or a natural history landscape, is a real value we can add.

Do you think people living in the upper North Island, and in particular Aucklanders, need more recreation opportunities?

Yeah and that’s why we’re quite keen on the Te Paki and the Tarawera tracks. There’s a huge demand for that product and we would like to see something closer for New Zealanders to get out and spend three days in nature. 

What would you be doing if you weren’t running DOC?

I’ve always wanted to come to DOC. It’s one of the most privileged jobs you can have in New Zealand. 

It’s the most fantastic job I’ve ever had. If anything, my next call would be volunteer service abroad in one of the Pacific Islands.